A week ago, the 9th District Ohio Court of Appeals ordered Judge John Lohn of Medina County to take another look at the case of Sarah Hershberger. She is a 10-year-old suffering from an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The appeals court ruled that Lohn had failed to weigh adequately which course would best serve her interests — the decision of her parents to withhold treatment (at her request) or to appoint a limited guardian to make medical decisions, as proposed by Akron Children’s Hospital.
On Tuesday, Lohn responded, reiterating his earlier decision, affirming the rights of the parents, ruling that the appointment of a guardian would interfere “with Sarah’s need and desire to be cared for by her loving parents.” He states flatly that “the guardianship will not promote Sarah’s interests.”
The love of the parents is plain. So are the difficult circumstances, including the harsh side-effects of chemotherapy. Yet missing in the Lohn ruling is a full accounting of the consequences of withdrawing the treatment. Without chemotherapy, Sarah will die, most likely within six months to one year, according to her physicians.
Thus, the interest worth promoting is substantial, to say the least — giving her a chance at beating the cancer and extending her life.
Lohn notes in his ruling that chemotherapy is not a certain cure, citing the 15 percent of patients “who receive the treatment and die anyway.” But he doesn’t complete the thought — that 85 percent have a positive outcome. Instead, he adds that even if the treatment is successful, Sarah faces a “very good chance” of becoming infertile and suffer other health risks. He neglects to include that still, she would have a life ahead of her.
The judge points to several “negative effects” the appointment of a guardian would have on the Hershbergers and their daughter. He argues the media attention would compromise their “quiet, dignified life,” even suggests the parents could face jail if they cross the guardian, leaving Sarah in a foster home. He concludes that appointing the guardian would open the door wide to other institutions overriding the objections of parents.
Parental rights deserve, and receive, much respect. Yet, again, the legal standard in this instance is promoting the interests of the child. For all the negatives effects the judge describes, and overstates, none is as negative as Sarah soon dying.
Lohn argues he has never seen the law used against “suitable parents to prevent them from making medical decisions for their child.” The rarity of the circumstances also reinforce that Children’s Hospital hasn’t acted lightly. The Hershbergers say they may return to chemotherapy after trying alternative methods. What the doctors warn is that would be too late, the cancer having spread, the treatment required even rougher. They have first in mind saving a girl’s life.